Plagiarizing Myself

I like assigning dialogs to students. Sometimes I will have them write personal letters to characters in novels, or invent fictional correspondence between authors. Last week my sophomore honors section had to write a movie review of Confessions of a Shopaholic using the ideas and voice of Mary Wollstonecraft. It seems to have worked, too. Today before class they were saying that they couldn't get Wollstonecraft out of their head when they were watching TV over the weekend. These kinds of assignments are fun, but they can really tank if you don't carefully present your expectations.

I learned this the first time I tried a dialog. I was teaching the spring semester of Humanities. In that class we read Hamlet and Machiavelli's The Prince, so one of the prompts I assigned asked students to create a dialog between Machiavelli and Hamlet: how would Machiavelli have advised young prince Hamlet on his Claudius problem?

Done right, the assignment should have gotten students to bring one text to bear on another. The pitfall I should have anticipated was the creative nature of the task. It allowed the more adventuresome students to do something fresh and fun, which lead them astray. They started having so much fun inventing humorous dialog that they forgot to put any intellectual substance in their work. They also had never written anything like this before and lacked a model for how it should look on the page. The whole exercised bombed.

So I decided to write a fake dialog to use as a model the second time I tried it. I included spelling and punctuation errors and gave it a grade of B-. I even added fake margin comments (semicolon error here... You really should cite this...). When I presented the sample dialog to the class, I said something like, "Now here's a paper that was written for this class," which wasn't actually a lie. It was written for the class. I just conveniently omitted the fact that I had written it myself and tailored it to highlight the very problems I wanted them to avoid.

And so began my practice of creating fake student papers. Whenever I was trying something new and lacked an older student copy to use as a model, I just made one up (complete with errors and my own phony grade and comments). I felt guilty about this for a long time. While I wasn't outright lying, I was being a little deceptive. Then, five or six years ago at a teaching conference, I confessed the dark, shameful secret that I sometimes wrote fake student responses to new assignments. I even admitted I felt guilty about it and ruminated aloud whether it was possible to plagiarize yourself. But the woman running the conference just threw back her head and laughed, "Faking a B- student paper!" she roared. "Oh God, I LOVE that!"

I don't know. Maybe it's wrong, but it works.

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